Battle Lines Drawn in Seattle

By: Steve Outing

It's been a busy week in the online city guide business:

* Microsoft launched its first Sidewalk site, for (appropriately) Seattle, on Thursday.
* The Seattle Times became the first major newspaper to sign up for Digital City's "Affiliate Program."
* And CitySearch announced a strategic partnership with Torstar Corp. of Canada, publisher of the Toronto Star, to deliver local online information to greater Toronto and southern Ontario. Torstar also has made a strategic investment in California-based CitySearch.

Seattle is the city to watch, as the evolution of the online city guide industry plays out. The chief players are now lined up to do battle in cyberspace. On one side is Microsoft's Sidewalk, which has partnered with the alternative newsweeklies, the Seattle Weekly and Eastsideweek; on the other is the Seattle Times, which just joined with Digital City Inc. to be a Digital City affiliate serving Seattle. (CitySearch has not yet announced an intention to go into the Seattle market.)

Sidewalk, which is a local entertainment online guide that allows users to customize what kind of listings and entertainment news and reviews they see and have custom information e-mailed to them, appears to be off to a strong start. The site has an impressive amount of advertising, both local and national. Spokesperson Gayle Troberman says that the Sidewalk team is pleased with the reaction of advertisers -- particularly local ones -- to the Seattle site. All of the ads on the site at launch are paid, she says.

Sidewalk is using CUC International as its local sales force in cities like Seattle, while national ads are sold by a Microsoft national sales team. Eight national advertisers are present at launch, including Bank of America, Barnes & Noble, BMW of North America, CitiBank, Club Med Sales, United Airlines and Visa U.S.A.

Still, over at the Seattle Times, executives claim not to be terribly worried about Sidewalk's debut. Senior vice president and executive editor Michael Fancher expresses dismay at some of the writing being done about online city guides, which he believes discounts the strengths of newspapers in holding onto their local information franchises. Some writers seem not to believe that any publisher can compete with the deep pockets of Microsoft, he complains.

Says Fancher of Microsoft and Sidewalk, "I don't think this (serving local markets) is a natural fit for them," and he doubts the software giant's staying power in the online city guide business outside of major metro markets. "But you'll find that the local newspaper will be in it for the long haul. It's our franchise," he says. Microsoft's entry into the city guide business will stimulate the market, so there's a benefit to its Sidewalk venture even if it's not around long term, in Fancher's view.

The Times debuted its response to Sidewalk last fall, with an entertainment service called Datebook on its Web site. This week's announcement that the Times is to become a Digital City affiliate is another move to enhance the Times' position as a central entertainment information source -- and another tool to fight Seattle Sidewalk. (The Digital City-Seattle Times affiliation launch is expected by the end of the second quarter.)

First affiliate

The Times is the first and only affiliate relationship that Digital City has secured, according to DCI president Paul deBenedictus. The affiliate program was announced in February at the Editor & Publisher Interactive Newspapers conference, and deBenedictus says talks are ongoing with a number of newspapers and television stations about setting up affiliate relationships.

Digital City expects to have perhaps 30-40 "owned and operated" Digital City units in major cities, where DCI works with local information providers and freelancers to supplement content generated by local staffs. But in another, perhaps 100 markets, DCI will establish affiliate relationships where a media partner is the primary supplier of content serving a particular market, as is the case with Seattle.

DCI will provide national content for use by the affiliate on its Web site (things like movie databases and television guides), while the affiliate is responsible for local content. Users of the America Online proprietary service who visit the Digital City Seattle area will be directed for most local content to the Seattle Times' Web site, which will show up within a frame that retains some Digital City branding. Digital City is unlikely to establish its own local Web site in affiliate cities like Seattle, deBenedictus says, because it doesn't want to compete directly with its affiliates. Visitors to the national Digital City Web site will be referred to affiliate Web sites when they click on a particular city, but the affiliate site will show up within a frame that continues to identify Digital City.

Driving traffic home

The Times' Fancher says the deal serves his company's self-interest in driving what he hopes will be substantial new traffic to his Web site. Also advantageous is that the Times will not have to create new content or repackage existing content for another platform. He says the Times in the past has rejected deals with the proprietary online services because he didn't want to repurpose Times content as part of another company's service. Neither Fancher nor deBenedictus was willing to discuss terms of the affiliate deal, though co-marketing and some sort of revenue share on advertising is included. (Affiliates can sell ads into Digital City components like local chat areas, where revenue is shared.)

Fancher says he's ready for the competition from Microsoft and others in the online community guide space. Seattle has at least a dozen online city guides operating on the Web, including a local Yahoo! metro guide, of which the Times has a relationship that gives it premium links within Yahoo! Seattle; US West's Dive In Seattle; and several local competitors such as

The local-market battles being waged now in Seattle's cyberspace are nothing unusual, says Fancher. The newspaper has long faced substantial competition from some strong suburban papers, for example. "We're used to it," he says.

NCAA online reporters ban: Part 2

My last column about the NCAA barring reporters employed by online services from covering the Final Four basketball championship brought some interesting mail. Azeem Azhar of The Economist (London) wrote:

"Perhaps the medium is the message after all? Imagine if we at The Economist transitioned all our distribution to electronic, via e-mail, Web and Lotus Notes (we won't, but just imagine); suddenly we are denied press credentials! Amazing."

Ryan Thornburg related his experience at another college basketball tournament:

"I saw your note today about the NCAA tournament and was (unfortunately) not surprised to read what was going on. I was sent to the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament by WRAL-TV's Web site (CBS affiliate in Raleigh, North Carolina). My job was to take video of fans in stands after game, cheerleaders at halftime, post-game press conferences, Tournamania fan festival, etc. NO GAME action. And, surprise, because the ACC had its own Web site my camera was taken from me and I was told to take a hike. Thought this was especially weird since WRAL OnLine had been licensed to carry audio netcasts of the actual games. Just thought I'd let you know the NCAA wasn't the only organization protecting its Web traffic."

In my column, I neglected to interview the folks at, who have been doing online sports longer than anyone else, about their experience covering the NCAA. Nando executive editor Seth Effron wrote:

"We've been covering the NCAA tournament online for the last three years. In fact, during the 1995 tournament, (we) provided on-site coverage. In fact, I sat in the stands, and was online, live, during the semi-finals and final game. While I wasn't 'credentialed,' I did find a way to cover the event and provide special information to Nando's readers.

"We have been fighting the credential battle longer than ANY other online service -- going at it with the NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference since 1995. There are several angles that ... might have added interesting information to your column.

"1. Both the NCAA and the ACC (and I assume other conferences) have a strange standard when it comes to online news. The NCAA will give credentials to other radio and TV medium besides the 'official' broadcast organizations (CBS-TV, for example, had the broadcast rights). ESPN and a variety of local television outlets got credentials. At conference tournaments, such as the ACC, while ESPN has the broadcast rights, several other TV stations were given credentials to get into the event to cover it -- while they obviously couldn't broadcast the game.

"2. Several major college teams have and do credential online services -- including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (the hottest ticket in college basketball), Wake Forest University (another HOT TICKET for coverage this year with Tim Duncan as the star) and N.C. State University. Last year, was credentialed to cover several of the regional matches. It is interesting that these schools, who have similar space demands, don't feel the same way. Only Duke University denied our request for credentials -- giving space as the reason."

Staci Kramer, chair of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Task Force on Online Journalism and New Technologies, points out that her group is looking for examples of ways online journalists are being treated differently than their peers. The task force has already heard from a number of online journalists who have been denied access or been told that information provided to traditional journalists won't be made available to them. The group is troubleshooting those incidents. For more information about the SPJ online task force, contact Kramer at

Finally, George Schlukbier, president of TotalSports, the company that produced the Final Four Web "cybercast" site under license by the NCAA, comments that what his company was doing should be separated from the credentials issue. "We were not covering the event as journalists. We were broadcasting the event like CBS (which has the exclusive broadcast rights) over the Internet," he says.

"We have been studing the issues for a long time and believe we will do better as a company by working with the folks who have an exclusive license for major sporting events rather than going to court. If the newspapers want to go to court all the power to them, but for a small company like Total Sports to try and take on NBA, MLB or NCAA over accreditation makes no sense, in my opinion," Schlukbier says.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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